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Lateral Collateral (Radial Collateral) Ligament Injuries

The Lateral collateral ligament of the elbow (LCL) is sometimes also called the radial collateral ligament (RCL). This ligament can become sprained or torn as a result of a sports injury. Because the LCL has an important role in supporting the elbow, injury can lead to elbow instability.

Lateral Collateral (Radial Collateral) Ligament Injuries Hero Image 2

The elbow joint has three ligaments that connect the upper and lower arm and provide stability and range of motion. The lateral collateral ligament (LCL) of the elbow is the ligament on the outside of the elbow, not to be confused with the LCL in the knee. The LCL in the elbow is sometimes also called the radial collateral ligament (RCL).

This ligament can become sprained or torn as a result of a sports injury. Because the LCL has an important role in supporting the elbow, injury can lead to elbow instability.

What causes Lateral Collateral (Radial Collateral) Ligament Injuries?

Elbow lateral collateral ligament injuries are usually caused by a fall on an outstretched hand. If you dislocate the elbow as a result of the fall, the LCL may tear. A less serious fall can still cause an LCL sprain. In general, elbow LCL injuries occur most often in sports where players often fall during the game.

Elbow lateral collateral ligament injuries are most common in these sports:

• Football
• Soccer
• Rugby

Symptoms

The most common symptom of a lateral collateral ligament injury is pain on the outside of your elbow after a fall. You may also notice a clicking sound or catching sensation in your elbow when you extend your arm.

When to see a doctor

If you suffer a fall on an outstretched hand and have pain in your elbow that doesn’t go away, you should see your doctor. He/she will ask you about your injury and symptoms, and examine your elbow. Your doctor may palpate the area over your LCL to check for tenderness and gently move your elbow around to determine your range of motion without pain. To confirm an elbow lateral collateral ligament injury diagnosis or rule out a more serious injury, your doctor may also order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test, which will show the soft tissues in your elbow joint.

Non-operative treatment

Most elbow LCL injuries are treated non-operatively. Conservative treatment will include:

• Using a splint for five days to a week to immobilize your elbow at a 90-degree angle
• Resting the elbow
• Icing to alleviate pain
• Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID) for pain and inflammation
• Physical therapy to regain range of motion

You can also try these exercises at home to stretch and strengthen the muscles surrounding the elbow joint:

Surgical Treatment

Athletes with an elbow LCL injury usually don’t need surgery. Rarely, surgery is recommended if you have both dislocated your elbow and torn your LCL. The operation focuses on repositioning the elbow bones correctly and repairing the tear in the lateral collateral ligament.

Recovery

Most athletes have a relatively fast recovery time, returning to normal activities within two to three weeks after a mild elbow LCL injury. If you have a more severe injury that requires surgery, recovery takes about three months. Physical therapy will always be an important part of your recovery, helping to restore range of motion to your elbow. Athletes tend to be able to return to play with full range of motion and strength, guided by their doctor or physical therapist.

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